High school athletics are feeling the effects of the omicron surge, from paused games to restricted fans, during a winter season that coaches and administrators predicted would be difficult for indoor, close-contact sports.
With the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States at an all-time high, schools are reviewing coronavirus protocols and guidelines to ensure that students can continue to play in person. Due to transmission risks, teams have had to limit out-of-state travel or postpone in-league games. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second largest, returned from winter break in person this week, with a halt on all sports competitions due to an increase in cases.
Despite omicron, school officials are optimistic that districts will not face the same level of disruption as last year, when some programs saw reduced seasons, if any at all, as a result of measures such as vaccination and social distancing.
According to district data, more than 65,000 public school staff and students tested positive for COVID-19 before the Los Angeles Unified School District returned to the classroom on Tuesday following winter break, for a positivity rate of more than 14 percent. The school district has temporarily halted all athletic competitions this week while it investigates the cases, with student athletes permitted to practice outside while wearing a mask.
This week is also being used by the district to upgrade its health and safety protocols in order to comply with stricter county health department protocols. Teams that have four or more linked cases in a 14-day period must now suspend activities for a week.
In the midst of the surge, other organizations have revised their protocols. All athletes and team personnel in high-risk sports in Washington state are required to have regular COVID-19 testing regardless of vaccination status “in response to recent sports-related outbreaks,” according to health officials. The frequency of testing was also increased to three times per week. Previously, unvaccinated students were tested twice a week in schools.
In early December, the state health department linked 200 COVID-19 cases to multiple wrestling tournaments, prompting the revision of the rules. To help stem the spread of the virus, the school district in Portland, Oregon, made several changes to its COVID-19 protocols through at least early February, including requiring student-athletes to wear masks at all times. Spectators aged 5 and up must now show proof of being fully vaccinated or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of competing.
Some schools have recently limited the number of fans who can attend games. Spectators are not permitted on Oahu until further notice “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases,” according to the Hawaiian island’s school sports association.
Due to an increase in cases in the community, school officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, are restricting crowds to only family members until Jan. 21.
“The health department had anticipated the surge, and we’ve taken appropriate measures to try to limit the virus’s spread as much as possible,” said Bill Curran, director of athletic programs for Fairfax County Public Schools.
Mitigation strategies, according to Niehoff, have helped keep sports in play with only minor disruptions this year. Protocols “big and small” have been implemented, ranging from widespread vaccination efforts to having multiple, sanitized basketballs on hand during games, digital ticketing and concessions, and frequent communication when potential postponements arise.
Schools have grown accustomed to being adaptable during the pandemic, despite the challenges.
This school year, sports programs in New York City have had to adapt to changing protocols regarding vaccination requirements, spectators, and travel while seasons were about to begin or were already underway.
Travel restrictions to out-of-town competitions have “hurt us,” according to Shawn Mark, head coach of the South Shore boys’ basketball team in Brooklyn.
All athletes in the nation’s largest public school system, New York City’s, are required to be vaccinated in order to participate.
According to preliminary data, the city’s public school enrollment has also dropped by about 17,000 students this year, posing another challenge as athletes have left the public school system or the city altogether, according to Mark. Despite a couple postponements, Mark is optimistic that this season will continue.